Interview with Mario, Jose, Juanfran, and Miguel Melgar
The Melgar Brothers didn’t set out to start a business empire. They didn’t intend to create a new healthy eating movement in their country Peru. They didn’t try to inspire others to eat healthier and create a sustainable planet. No, it was not their plan, and yet they have met with great success in all of the above.
What prompted the four brothers, Mario, Jose, Juanfran, and Miguel, who all came from vastly different careers to start their vegan restaurant-chain? It was to save a life.
When eldest brother Mario Melgar was working in Copenhagen, Denmark, he was told by a local physician that he had an incurable disease in his digestive system and he had no more than five more years to live.
When Mario told the news to his brothers, they refused to accept that nothing could be done and they set out to create a healthy lifestyle regiment for him. A key part of that meant eliminating his junk food diet and replacing it with healthier options. Youngest brother Miguel started making vegan pizzas for Mario which were entirely plant-based, right down to the crust.
Soon people started asking where they could get these amazingly delicious and healthy pizzas and so the brothers started making them for parties. Before long, and upon popular demand, the Veggie Pizza franchise was born.
Beyond successfully saving their brother’s life, the Melgars created a healthy eating empire under their 4 Bros Holding Company. Food Critics have credited them with creating a new demand for healthy options from environmentally sustainable sources in Peru.
We sat down with the four Melgar brothers to discuss the charmingly unintentional manner in which they created a business empire, lessons learned from working with each other, and what obstacles lie in the path of promoting healthy eating in modern Peru.
The four brothers interviewed here below from oldest to youngest are Mario, 42, who’s in charge of the family business development. Next is Jose, 40 who looks after operations and personnel. Juanfran, 39, is in charge of PR, image & marketing, and communications. The youngest is Miguel, the mad genius in the kitchen who is responsible for all the healthy dishes they serve their customers.
You are all working together today, but you did not start out your careers that way. What are your professional backgrounds?
Mario: Basically, after high school and university, we each went our own way. We worked for different companies; I worked for Maersk Line, Jose worked for Nokia.
Juanfran: I started working at a photography studio for big magazines and newspapers.
Mario: And Miguel, he worked for our dad. Actually, our father started his business and he tried to get us to continue his work, but we all kindly refused.
Juanfran: He’s a transport broker. He wanted us to follow his path, but we are more creatively oriented.
Mario: I think it’s generational because my father and all of his friends, they are in business merely for making money as the primary goal. We don’t; we are in business because we have a purpose – money is merely a consequence, a result.
I understand the impetus for starting the business was extremely personal and urgent. Can you walk us through what happened during this time?
Mario: One day while I was working for Maersk in Denmark, I went to the doctor because I had a pain in my back. The doctor said, ‘You are really sick. You have an incurable disease in your nervous system and your digestive system. You have five years to live, and that’s it.’
Juanfran: At the time he weighed over 100 kilos.
Mario: 120 kilos, I was really fat! Since then, I’ve lost 50 kilos. So, I came back to Peru, and I spoke to my brothers and said to them, ’Guys, please save my life!’ And they said, ‘Mario we will not let you die. We will start training; we will start eating healthy.” That’s how Veggie Pizza got started. We started to create our own food, our own cooking. Miguel here…
Juanfran: He’s a chef.
Miguel: I resigned from my job with my father to become a plant-based chef. It was quite an extreme turn for me, but I felt I had to do it. It was just the right thing to do.
Juanfran: He’s our Guru now.
Mario: Miguel is the soul of the family. He’s the soul of all of the businesses that we build.
How did your operation evolve from a quest to get Mario healthy to a full-fledged business operation?
Mario: Veggie Pizza started the day that the doctor told me: ‘Mario, I cannot cure you. Go home and die.’ And when a doctor tells you to go home and die, there’s no other way out. One Sunday I remember, I told Miguel I wanted some junk pizza, and Miguel said ‘Mario, you don’t have to leave the house for that. I will make you a pizza. So, he started cooking everything healthy from the crust to the cheese. Instead of milk, he invented the ‘avocado cheese’, which is 100% dairy-free.
Juanfran: The most important thing was the after-feeling. The goal was to make the pizza to be good for his body.
Miguel: To feel great after you eat it.
Mario: When Miguel told me he was making me a vegetable-pizza I thought I was going to get bread with a salad on top – no way that could be a good combination. Before that, I never ate anything from a plant. I only ate junk food. But, it was surprisingly delicious, and Juanfran took some nice pictures of those pizzas.
Juanfran: We put the pictures up on Facebook and Instagram, and we immediately got a lot of feedback, like hundreds of comments on each picture. We realised there were a lot of people who wanted to be healthy but didn’t know how. It was 2013.
Mario: We started publishing the pictures, and people were asking, ‘Where can I buy that?’ We never thought this was going to turn into a business. That was supposed to be just for me, that’s what I was eating.
At what point did it go from a home-based hobby to a commercial operation?
Mario: So basically, every Sunday our friends would come over and try this pizza, the Melgars’ Healthy Pizza.
Juanfran: We didn’t think of it as a business it was just something that everybody was talking about, the Melgars’ Healthy Pizza. One day I met a friend, she owned a magazine, and she was doing an event, and she invited us to be one of the caterers there.
Mario: The line-up for our pizza at the party was three blocks long, and all the other restaurants next to us were almost empty.
Juanfran: We had +100 people in line. And right after that event, we started to make dinners like pizza-party with organic wines and Peruvian craft beer, first for our friends, then for the friends of our friends. What’s funny is every brother took his place without a discussion. Mario and me, we were entertaining the people, I was serving the wines. Jose was going to the market and meeting with farmers to get the freshest ingredients, and everything and Miguel were making the pizzas. We all had our place. It was easy, and it worked.
Jose: We started visiting customers at their houses, carrying our own ovens. We had to cook two or three dinners per night every day!
Miguel: After two weeks of doing that, we were booked for almost a whole year.
Juanfran: It was amazing. So I told my brothers: We shouldn’t be carrying our oven all over the city. Why don’t we put it in one place and let people visit us?
Mario: So we started to look for a place. By that point, the press was already asking us for interviews. We didn’t know why – we were just four brothers making pizzas. But we found this nice old house from the 1900s in the Bohemian District of Barranco. We looked at a place there, because that’s the artist’s neighbourhood. People, there are more open to new ideas. We worked non-stop for a month. The entire place was decorated only with plants. The day we opened, we had a cue that extended around the corner. The first week, critics from all over the country came and couldn’t get a table. It was all over the news. We received visits from celebrities like the guys from Guns and Roses, The Ramones, and even the British artist Joss Stone.
After that kind of initial success, you must have had investors knocking on your door.
Mario: Lots of investors, we got lots of offers, and in the beginning, we rejected them all because this is a family business. We were concerned that if we brought in somebody external outside the family…
Juanfran: They would change it all. We didn’t want to compromise the soul and the purpose of the company.
Mario: If you take money from the wrong guy, then you’ll get in trouble. So we were cautious until we received an offer from a very good friend of ours. We sold part of the shares of the restaurant to raise funds and, that allowed us to grow really fast. We opened five restaurants in one year, and now we even have our own food-service production centre. Everything started to accelerate, and we’re really thankful for that. So, we created a holding company; it’s called the 4 Bros Holding Company.
Juanfran: What we want to do is to create a revolution in the food business. We live in Peru – we have the best vegetables in the world and a lot of varieties. In our country, people normally have very poor eating habits. There’s a lot of junk food around, so most of the time they don’t realise how good the Peruvian vegetables are. We are now working directly with all of the organic farmers, and we are helping them to get organised. We are starting to develop fair trade business with them. We’re cutting off the dealers, and we are buying directly from them. Giving added value to their products and selling them to the consumer, making it easy for them to become sustainable and help the end-customers to eat healthier.
Jose: Veggie Pizza opened a new market in the food business in Peru. There was no modern edition of plant-based nutrition, and we won several prizes and recognition all over the region. Miguel is one of the very few plant-based chefs in town.
Mario: Right on, I think Veggie Pizza opened the door, but while it is quickly expanding through franchises outside Peru, the 4 Bros Holding company founded other companies in parallel. The main one is Veggie Pizza, but we are as well starting to expand through Veggie Lab which is a gastronomic laboratory where Miguel creates all the ‘crazy stuff’. Everything is healthy-food related.
Miguel: Veggie Lab started as the laboratory for Veggie Pizza, but then we thought: we have a gastronomic laboratory.. so why don’t we explore all of the other food-ideas flowing in my brains? So that’s how we started doing ready-to-eat vegan soups. We are also producing avocado-cheese, four different recipes of veggie burgers, and the ‘fast juices’! ‘Fast-juices’ is basically frozen fruit in a recipe with Peruvian super-foods, ready-to-eat. So, now you can easily make you a fruit-juice or smoothie, with no sugar added. Remember to recycle the packaging! We have lots of new recipes all the time, and people seem to love it.
One day you suddenly all started working together which I suppose you hadn’t done before. How was that in the beginning? Did it change your relationships?
Miguel: In the restaurant, we learnt the art of swearing-while-smiling. Our kitchens are open, so everybody can see us, so during the rush hours when we are under a lot of pressure, we are still smiling while swearing at each other. (laughs)
Juanfran: In the beginning it was hard, but now we quickly found our right positions. Everyone took their own place fast enough, and there’s something that each of us does better than the others, so we decided on the first day who was in charge of each part and who has the last word about each subject.
Mario: One thing that helped us a lot is the AEF (Family Business Association in Peru) because they helped us establishing a family protocol and guided us through the process. In the beginning, our board meetings were really funny: It was the four of us in our pyjamas, watching movies and talking about business. Now we even have a dress code and turned really professional. We now even have a personal advisor who helps us take our business decisions.
Jose: And when we work together, there is some weird-cool energy that flows around. We don’t know how to define it, but we basically create everything together. We work together, and everyone has something to say and to add value to the project.
What did your parents think when this business started to take off?
Mario: My mother is pleased. She doesn’t get everything in the finer details, but she’s very happy that we’re working together and that we have each other. When addressing the press we talk a lot about our family. My mother is proud of that because she’s the one that told us to stay together all the time and taught us that family comes first. My father is proud of the family business as well. He constantly advises us based on his expertise.
Juanfran: He doesn’t get the part of doing things not for the money but rather for helping the people, or being responsible for the rest of the planet. I think it has something to do with the way his generation was raised, who think more or less the same that way. But I think he’s slowly starting to get it.
So now you’re in the position to consult other businesses and tell them how to become more sustainable and more ethical to a certain extent. So where do you guys start that conversation? What kind of efforts does a business have to go through to become more sustainable?
Miguel: I would say it starts with a clear idea, followed by tight agreements, a fine execution and finally a repetition of the cycle. People who work at your company should believe in what you believe. For example, sometimes I want to spend money on organic packaging, and people tell me I should go for cheaper packaging to lower the costs. They just don’t get that through sustainability; you’re not only helping the planet, but also your customers are going to connect better with you, and that way you’re going to get more loyal customers, and your sales will naturally grow. It’s just a different way of thinking.
Mario: Furthermore, I would say the first step is actually to look yourself in the mirror and to realise who you are and what is your purpose? So if the purpose of your business is just to get money, you are doing something wrong because it’s not going to be sustainable. If you are ‘one more’, you are actually ‘one less’. Only when you’ve looked yourself in the mirror and realise who you really are, can you move forward. Afterwards, you can learn to dress-up, and then get ready for the party. And, we can even teach you to dance. But the first step is to look yourself in the mirror and realise who you are and what the purpose of your business is.
Regarding the Peruvian environment that you live in, what is the entrepreneurial ecosystem like for you guys? Is Peru getting better at supporting entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship with younger people?
Juanfran: The current situation in Peru is that lots of young people want to be their own bosses nowadays, so most of them start-up a business right after they finish studying at the university. It’s a nice feeling because most of them consider us as a raw model to follow and ask us for advice. They want to make a difference, and we encourage them to follow their dreams. We are currently mentoring lots of young entrepreneurs who really think they can change the world. It’s cyclic, a chain of love: you help one, and they help others in turn, and so on. It works well because we have much in common – we speak the same language; we believe we can make a difference in the world.
What do you believe is your greatest vulnerability today?
Mario: With time, we have come to realise and accept who we are and what our weaknesses are. I can tell you our strength is our creativity. We can imagine things where things once appeared unimaginable. But that’s also our main weakness. Sometimes we go way beyond the imagination and then it becomes difficult to implement what we’ve designed. So, we’ve learned that we should stay on the creative side and not try to execute everything by ourselves.
Jose: The point is, we help other dreamers to become doers, to make their dreams come true. We encourage them to learn from failure and move on, no matter what.
What is your greatest wish for the company going forward?
Mario: I only want to create a new culture, a movement. I want to help to build a kinder environment and to leave the world better than we found it.
Juanfran: My wish is to live in peace, together with my family, friends, colleagues and customers. To work with people who inspire others, creating a community altogether.
Jose: I want to inspire as many people as I can. Starting with my family, my kids, my wife, and my brothers because I want to be an inspiration to them as well.
Miguel: I want to create more crazy things with my brothers. And to create a legacy to the world.